Shirlee Cunningham

Consider the Daily Reboot

Shirlee Cunningham

Growing up in the housing projects of inner-city Detroit when it was the “murder capital of the U.S.” required academic and street smarts to climb out of poverty.  The summer before I entered the ninth grade at 13, having skipped a grade, my mother sat me down and explained that if I wanted to continue in school I would have to get a job in order to have clothes and school supplies and to help with groceries.  We lived on an $8 a week budget—all in.

The brilliance of Motown was in full swing and Diana Ross was a “success hero” for me:  she too lived in one of Detroit’s projects and got out.  So I learned the hard way that walking door to door asking businesses to hire you at that age was not going to work.  Typical teen jobs like babysitting and yard work were not possible as the neighborhood was too dangerous.  After all, seeing someone murdered outside your bedroom window made it clear it was not a good idea to walk around at night or get involved doing chores in an area where you were not known.  What to do?  I developed my first major strategy: putting oneself at the mercy of the powerful and simply begging for a job. I determined that the Church would not let me down.

Learning to pivot

Russ and Shirlee Cunningham

My first real paying job was typing for the local Roman Catholic Bishop every day that summer.  To this day, that Bishop remains a hero to me. In addition, I had an office job at the high school and, since I knew I would have to work through college, out went calculus and advanced biology to free up class time for shorthand and simple business classes.  And that meant my dream of becoming a doctor also was gone.  It was just survival, though.  In the projects, the successful ones learn to pivot.

Imagine the rebooting a kid from the projects goes through with this work history:  By 16, I became the first student intern in General Motors history after a grueling 8-hour interview process.  Taking three buses each way to work and back, I gave up lunch most days to get there on time and work as late as necessary on an executive floor.  Learning how to smile, make small talk in a business setting, and dress the part of a corporate employee required a lot of energy. 

Once I started college at Wayne State, I moved on to work in the GM Law Library every day, doing research for lawyers and reading the Congressional Record. As I worked my way through Wayne State and subsequently a masters from the University of Michigan, I generally worked in positions that supported my career goals.  Each job was a reboot, that is, a recreation of who I was in the world.  

My first career was Clinical Social Worker in a psychiatric training hospital built on the UCSF-Langley Porter model.  I was able to advance my training in seminars with psychiatric residents and prescribe medication.  I became certified not only as an LCSW but also as MFCC (marriage family child counselor).

When I moved to California I accepted a position in the Employee Assistance Program of a large utility with four staff, most of whom were Ph.D.’s in psychology.  We managed a number of unique programs:  training female linemen to cope with their environment and colleagues and build upper body strength, as well as developing the first all-inclusive psychiatric screening program for nuclear power plant employees and new hires.

Moving to management consulting and executive coaching

Subsequent to these successes I was offered a number of positions in human resources, Customer Services, and Governmental Relations – which turned out to be great fun.  

One of the economic consulting firms I utilized offered me an opportunity to grow a new department for them: management consulting and executive coaching. While at the consulting firm I became so fatigued I could barely drive to work and had to sleep in the car in the garage to get the energy to walk into my office. I was misdiagnosed for several years until eventually, I learned I had complete heart block, Afib, and an assortment of other electrical issues with my heart.  A pacemaker was in order and a less demanding life called for.  I was just 44 and it looked like my work life was over.

But I rebooted yet again as an executive coach and management consultant on my own. I worked all over the Western states and California with utility companies, think tanks, and firms in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.  Each job was stressful but fun, requiring almost immediate learning of the culture and business.  After a number of years, my husband Russ and I retired to the Sonoma wine country as the pace was too great for my heart.

Art becomes a consuming passion

The last 20 years have been another complete reboot.  I became a self-taught painter.  Working only in oil on gessoed panels in the Contemporary Realism style, I spent nearly ten years building my technique and then exhibiting in more than 50 national and international shows.  As a proud member of the Salmagundi Club in New York City, started by luminaries Wyeth and Tiffany and their friends 150 years ago, I established myself as a regular exhibitor in numerous juried shows.  Being nominated as a member of Salmagundi has been a highlight of my life.

Art is a consuming passion.  It requires several lifetimes to master and is an intellectual and emotional challenge.  For me, it is also physically painful to paint.  Due to the side effects of a 14 hour back surgery and other issues, I can only paint about 2 hours a day.  Not much when a typical painting takes at least 20-50 hours. 

Painting, like the other arts—writing, music—requires, one might say, “rebooting” every single day as you attempt to direct your brain to your hand to mix the paint and move the brush.  But the joy of being in that space cannot be matched.  Yes, I do need to pursue the business aspect of the art as well, but it is the actual act of painting — that is the driver.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I am confident that I will be able to adapt to whatever is necessary at each stage of my life.  Always move forward is my motto — it is a big, wide wonderful world out there and it is yours.

Here are some of Shirlee’s paintings, in order: Leopard siesta, Ladybug (look closely), Heavenward and Haiku tea (click side arrows to scroll):